The Landscape That Isn’t There
by Mary Lee Bragg
Review by JC Sulzenko
I like to binge read poetry collections, an indulgence not entirely inspired by streaming series on the Internet. That way, I immerse myself in the flow of poems and appreciate, uninterrupted, what unfolds within the structure of the collection as a whole.
Let me make another admission upfront. Usually, I am reluctant to review work by writers or poets I have met. I prefer the distance anonymity offers. In spite of that reservation, I agreed to read Mary Lee Bragg’s debut collection, The Landscape That Isn’t There.
Why? Since my recent connection with this Ottawa South poet comes from the Brewer pool change room rather than through writing-related pursuits, I believe I can proceed with both an open mind and open heart, the latter of which offers a segue into the second and most cohesive section of this poetry triptych, “Problems of the Heart.”
Bragg dedicates the book to the good people at the Ottawa Heart Institute who saved her life in 2017 and to her husband, fellow poet Colin Morton, who helps her “live it to the full.”
The 14 poems in “Problems of the Heart” lay bare Bragg’s vulnerability as her heart fails, she undergoes surgery and then heals. These poems anchor the collection well. The Grim Reaper stands close at hand but at bay in the first poem, “Hood,” and “Spoiler Alert” (a season of Netflix) completes the section with a romp of one-liners and an acknowledgment that escape from death is only temporary.
This poet doesn’t shy away from the visceral, as these lines from “Inner space” demonstrate:
“parts once secret
now white on grey
star in their own movie
knives are honed”
In “Rehab,” she offers a humorous take on how slowly time passes for seniors in an aquafit class and describes the instructor:
“in his baggy shorts the wedding tackle
snakes and wallops.”
She lets hope play in “Have You Tried?” which rehearses the potpourri of advice she received on how to stay well: “use journaling…,” “ breathe correctly,” “wear a stone next to the skin.” Yet with this punch:
“We want to believe
The book’s first section, “Finding Room,” offers a different focus, giving effect to the thesis in “Night, Meditation:”
“You can only go back to where.
You can never go back to when.”
Here, Bragg gives readers a glimpse into her own history – mini portraits of a mother’s coldness, a grandmother’s pioneering life as a farmer’s wife, childbirth, teen friendship and risky behaviour. She offers poignant laments for places where homes once stood, for forebears and family either long passed or about to die. “Silk” turns the texture of war into a wedding gown.
The poem, “Finding Room,” perhaps the most abstract piece in the collection, not only echoes the first poem in the section but also knits together strands of each of the other poems grouped with it and does so with great skill.
The final section of the book, “Sylvia and Friends,” offers an array of poems without a consistent theme. If I sound somewhat less enthusiastic about this miscellany, it is because the first two sections had raised my expectations for more cohesion in the third. In fact, a few of the poems in “Sylvia and Friends” could have appeared to advantage in one of the other sections.
That said, there are fine poems and memorable lines here, too. “The Literature of Snow” surprised me with its palindrome-like structure. The wisdom, power of observation, wit and empathy in the prose poem “Living in Public,” may make it my favourite in the collection, in fact.
Bragg writes free verse with clarity, using language and imagery that are spare yet satisfying, always accessible and deeply human.
I give the last word to Bragg herself since, in welcoming this collection, I join in the sentiment of thanksgiving captured by the poem, “Walking in the Woods with Sylvia Path:”
“I saw we are lucky to be scarred:
we have survived.”
JC Sulzenko is a Glebe writer and poet whose poetry collection, South Shore Suite…Poems, was published by Point Petre Publishing in November 2017. Her award-winning centos appeared in The Banister anthologies (2016, 2013.) She curates the “Poetry Quarter” for this paper and sits on the selection board for Bywords.